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Italy: Cycling City Modena
SUE DARLOW finds a rich everyday cycling culture in Modena, Italy. She also took the pictures which will soon be uploaded.
Modena is hardly known as the cycling capital of the world, or even of Italy, but that is what it is. It's a small city near Bologna between the Apennines and the Alps, with a lovely porticoed city centre painted in warm yellows and earthy browns and the magnificent marble Romanesque cathedral. The place is alive with cyclists.
Now that I have lived here for so many years and observed the Modenese awheel, something has dawned on me - a "bike culture" is not necessarily something that is self consciously created by people who love and promote cycling, who know all about gear ratios, aerodynamics and frame angles and who "dress the part". It can exist in a place where most cyclists don't care a jot about their bikes, couldn't tell you whether their bike had hub or rim brakes, couldn't mend a puncture if their life depended on it, and wouldn't be seen dead wearing any kind of cycle clothing, let alone a helmet. They wouldn't even class themselves as a cyclist, probably, yet these people use a cycle every day of the week to get somewhere within the city.
Let me describe the typical Modenese cyclist. The bike is always utilitarian - sit up and beg, one or three speed, a chainguard, a front basket and perhaps a skirt guard, but lights are strictly taboo. Also anathema are panniers - why bother with those, when you can balance ten kilos of shopping in carrier bags hanging from your handlebars? (I once was parking my bike when a park warden/policeman noticed my front panniers. Sucking in his cheeks, frowning and shaking his head, he informed me they were very dangerous and would affect the steering too much. I assured him they were fine, based on my ten year's experience with them. This visibly annoyed him and I had to beat a hasty retreat to avoid a confrontation.)
Carrying kids is no problem - pop one on the front child seat and ride with your knees out. You can also accommodate another child behind you.
Small dogs can sit in your wicker basket in front - large dogs can be led on a lead by your side. Girlfriends can be accommodated on the top tube, and school friends can stand upright on the rear carrier.
Typical cycle clothing includes suits, long slit skirts, stiletto heels, platform shoes, and in winter, mink coats. The only helmets are worn by the young American Mormon missionaries one sees around town. Favourite activities to be combined with cycling are smoking and talking on your mobile phone.
Modena is a flat city, so one rarely needs to get into a sweat. But just in case there's a danger of this, the elderly gents of the city, with years of experience, have perfected the art of slow cycling - just enough to keep one upright. The secret of this method is to have the saddle quite low and to pedal with the heel of the foot. Another way to avoid the slightest exertion it to hang on to one's pal on a moped - this also provides the opportunity for a congenial chat.
It is difficult to describe the position cyclists holds in the order of things here. Because they are not in a car they don't really exist. On the other hand being Italian they are extremely self confident and bolshie in the face of regulations.
Need to nip down a stretch of one way street? No need to slink along the side with your head bowed pretending you hadn't realised - much better to proceed magisterially down the centre, glowering at anyone who dares to claim their right of way in the opposite direction. About to emerge from a side street? Fix your stare in the direction away from any oncoming traffic and continue pedalling without hesitation. If you don't flinch, that traffic has just got to let you live. The old gents of Modena are past masters of this, and given their age, it must work! I haven't yet decided whether it's idiocy, plain cheek, or panache.